Clock winding down, Bradley takes shot

January 31, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Bill Bradley's decision to take a few whacks at Al Gore is the political equivalent of launching a three-point shot at the buzzer. It is a risky strategy, but it gives the challenger his only chance at overtaking the vice president.

The risk lies, of course, in the possibility the former senator from New Jersey may alienate voters who have been drawn to him by his insistence throughout the campaign that he is determined to take the high road. His image as a different kind of politician has been his most valuable asset.

But political advisers and leading supporters around the country have been telling Mr. Bradley in the last 10 days that Mr. Gore has passed him and has been pulling away. The opinion polls taken just before the debate showed Mr. Gore with leads of four to nine percentage points.

The vice president's new momentum, moreover, has been traced directly to his attacks on Mr. Bradley's health care plan and to Mr. Bradley's own passive response to the attacks. But in the final debate, the dynamics were quite different.

Mr. Bradley was the aggressor, accusing Mr. Gore repeatedly of distorting his health care proposals. And his rival has been telling the lies, Mr. Bradley argued, when he knows his facts are wrong. "You know better, you know better," Mr. Bradley said at one point, staring directly at the vice president. "You know what you're saying is not true."

At another point, Mr. Bradley asked, "Why should we believe that you will tell the truth as president if you don't tell the truth as a candidate?"

Mr. Gore tried to counter the attacks by saying repeatedly that they were the proof that Mr. Bradley is the one who is making "negative attacks" on him.

But the vice president appeared strained and defensive at this show of forcefulness from a rival with a reputation for being aloof and above the fray.

And the vice president was clearly being disingenuous when he kept insisting that he had never mentioned Mr. Bradley's name in either his speeches or his television commercials. In fact, he has been charging that he is the only Democrat who, among other things, will save the Medicare and Medicaid programs. It doesn't take much deductive reasoning to recognize the villain in the piece, at least according to Al Gore.

But one of the unfortunate realities of American politics today is that negative attacks usually work unless there is a prompt and forceful rebuttal. It is an article of faith in the political community that Michael S. Dukakis forfeited any chance he had at the White House in 1988 when he refused to fire back at George Bush's charges that he was soft on crime and lacking in patriotism.

Mr. Bradley now has shown he is not, as rumored of late, a tall Mr. Dukakis. His even compared his Democratic rival to Richard M. Nixon. "When Al accuses me of negative campaigning," he said, "he reminds of Richard Nixon. He would chop down a tree, stand on a stump and give a speech about conservation."

Mr. Bradley's sudden fondness for hardball was most clear, however, when he played a card he had been saving -- abortion rights. The New Jersey Democrat chided Mr. Gore for claiming he had always been a supporter of choice. As a member of the House of Representatives, Mr. Bradley said, Mr. Gore cast enough votes against abortion rights to give him an 84 percent score from a right-to-life group.

By contrast, Mr. Bradley noted that he had been a consistent supporter of abortion rights and public funding of abortions.

Mr. Gore did concede he had voted against federal funding of abortions, but he insisted he had "always" supported the right of a woman to make the choice for herself. Neither he nor Mr. Bradley mentioned that the vice president dropped his opposition to federal funding in his first run for the presidency in 1988.

With the primary only a few days away, Mr. Gore is now a strong favorite here. He has the backing of the entire Democratic establishment and, despite the tone of his campaign commercials, his "negatives" in opinion polls have been declining. He is also showing more strength against his likely Republican rival in November, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, thus dispelling the notion that he cannot win a general election.

But the dynamics of a New Hampshire primary can change dramatically in the final week. The question is whether Bill Bradley can change the dynamics by acting more like other politicians.

Jack W.Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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